Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Who Is Simon Warwick?

For her readers who are hungry for a smartly plotted whodunit full of Aristotelian moral hazards, reversals and recognitions that would please the great Greek philosopher himself, might Miss Lemon recommend
Who Is Simon Warwick? (1978) by Patricia Moyes.

Who is Simon Warwick? An excellent question. And one that keeps Ambrose Quince, executor of the late Lord Charlton's estate, Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett, and most certainly the reader guessing until the novel's remarkable close.

Simon Warwick, it seems, stands to inherit a tidy sum of both property and influence should he be able to substantiate his identity as the boy who was adopted by an American Army officer and his English bride in October 1944. It's no surprise, however, that laying claim to the estate invites more than one motive -- and opportunity -- for murder.

This neatly turned out narrative travels from London to Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and then back to London again. All of these places are fully realized. The novel is both moody and tense, and if Miss Lemon may say it again, full of surprises.

Patricia Moyes, author of some twenty works of mystery, said in an interview that she always strives to write the novels she would most like to read. A simple sounding sentiment, perhaps, but one that even the most seasoned writers would do well to keep close at hand.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

Miss Lemon must confess her weakness for Mother Goose. Baa, Baa Black Sheep, Little Miss Muffet, The Cat & the Fiddle ... there's something about the whole gang that is at once rakish and delightful.

Most intriguing, however, are those Mother Goose rhymes that take a murderous turn -- which is exactly what happens in Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940).

M. Poirot, having just conquered his fears of the dentist chair in 58 Queen Charlotte Street, trips lightly into the path of Dr. Morley's next patient. Nothing unusual for Poirot to remark about her, other than her double-barreled surname (Sainsbury Seale), a slovenly tint job and a great silver buckle that has just dislodged itself from her shoe.

Will that buckle become the first in a series of ominous clues to a game of murder?  Suffice it to say that the corpses pile up faster than a child can learn to count to twenty.

It's fortunate that Miss Lemon's dear friend, Chief Inspector Japp, is there to provide M. Poirot with just the right amount of opposition to set him on the track of a murderer.

As in most all of Mrs. Christie's novels written and published in the 1940s and '50s (see Taken at the Flood, for another example) readers will find herein snappy dialogue, a sense of humour, and a narrative pace that zings right along. Add to that a bit of espionage, covert identity, intricate plotting, and a neat parallel to the old Mother Goose rhyme, "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" and you have a most amusing way to pass a rainy April evening.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

No Medals for the Major

Pardon Miss Lemon if she seems to be on a tear with Margaret Yorke. But really, she finds the author's books so atmospheric, so tense and so psychologically astute, that sometimes it is all she can do to prevent herself from reading one right after another.

No Medals for the Major (1974) is no exception to the calibre of Ms. Yorke's oeuvre. From the book's excellent title to its dark yet completely plausible ending, Miss Lemon could not find a single fault. 

This story concerns one Major Johnson, a small and solitary man of dignified bearing but no real distinction, who strives to assimilate himself into retired life in the village of Wiveldown. The small inroads he makes are quickly blockaded when the body of a young girl who'd recently gone missing turns up in the boot of his car.

Forget innocent until proven guilty. The mob mentality that sweeps through the village and is then turned against the Major is enough to send even the gentlest of souls of a murderous spree. But that's not what happens here.... 

Like many of her novels, No Medals for the Major is a whydunit rather than a whodunit. And as in her others, the pieces of narrative puzzle are woven together in a startlingly clever pattern. 

Once employed as a librarian at Oxford, some of Ms. Yorke's most interesting characters are librarians. They are the recurring figures to look out for in her fiction. And trust Miss Lemon when she says that these librarians scale the range from shushing spinsters and sensitive intellectuals, to shrewd and self-serving backstabbers.  

Lest one fear that Miss Lemon shall soon exhaust the entire retinue of Margaret Yorkes and have nothing more to recommend, she promises this won't happen. At least not in the near future.

Margaret Yorke has written nearly 30 crime novels to date, with several of the early entries featuring the Oxford don and amateur sleuth Dr. Patrick Grant. (Miss Lemon is savouring those.)  Ms. Yorke also has authored some ten non-mystery novels, including Summer Flight (1957), Once a Stranger (1962) and The Limbo Ladies (1969).

Margaret Yorke was born in Surrey in 1924, and as far as Miss Lemon knows, is still hard at work at her craft and living in a village in Buckinghamshire.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Poe: A Life Cut Short

Miss Lemon was just browsing some reviews of Poe: A Life Cut Short (2008) by Peter Ackroyd, (after the fact of reading it, as she is often wont to do) and finds she must agree with at least one critic, who acidly observes that this could be resubtitled: A Book Cut Short.

Not that Miss Lemon intends any unkindness toward Mr. Ackroyd, whose tale  The Lambs of London, for instance, held her in utter thrall. It's just that she couldn't fight the feeling of disappointment that trailed her like a ball of lead as she slogged through the pages of this lithe and airy looking biography.

The problem, it seems, is that barely any life at all is breathed into the American poet and master of the macabre.

The biography begins promisingly enough -- and with Miss Lemon's favourite, a mystery:
On the evening of 26 September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe stopped in the office of a physician in Richmond, Virginia -- John Carter -- and obtained a palliative for the fever that had beset him. Then he went across the road and had supper at a local inn. He took with him, by mistake, Dr. Carter's malacca sword cane.
From there, Poe set out for a steamboat to Baltimore. It was the last time anyone would see him or officially account for his whereabouts. That is, until six days later, when he was about to meet his death.

With so much potential, it's a pity the biography doesn't continue in this arresting and mysterious vein. But what follows seem more like scattered vignettes and snippets of Poe's disappoinments and disgraces. What Miss Lemon longed for -- but did not find -- were the portraits of Poe as a writer. What, she wanted to know, fueled Poe's creative fire? How did he work?

Indeed, the way Mr. Ackroyd tells it, it's difficult to imagine Poe ever setting pen to paper at all, occupied as he was in getting himself dismissed from West Point, engaging in inappropriate love affairs, nursing his consumptive relations, running up debts, insulting his colleagues, getting sacked from various offices, and hitting up erstwhile friends and relations for the loan of $10 or more.

Poe's 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," credited as one of the first modern detective stories, is scarcely given a passing mention. But perhaps, this being a brief biography, there simply wasn't room. Even so, Miss Lemon noticed bits of repetition in the narrative -- one of her pet peeves, to be sure, and evidence of her notion that perhaps this biographical endeavor was put together in too much haste.

But all is not lost for Mr. Ackroyd's tribute to Poe. For what it did do was send Miss Lemon back to what she views as two of the greatest contributions to American lyric poetry: "The Raven"  and the stunningly onomatopoeic "The Bells." For that, she isn't sorry.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Miles to Go

Dear readers, by now you must know Miss Lemon and all of her quirks: how she values order and efficiency; how she loves Devonshire cream atop a freshly baked rock cake; her passion for filing; and how she likes nothing better than to curl up on her divan on a rainy Sunday afternoon to read a good old-fashioned British murder mystery.

You also may have noticed Miss Lemon's reluctance to dip her toe into the pool (mind she did not say 'cess') of modern politics.  So I think you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that, on occasion, an old cat can indeed change her stripes.

Just such a realisation struck when Miss Lemon discovered how much she enjoyed reading the very modern, very American and very action-packed spy thriller Miles to Go (2010), by Amy Dawson Robertson.

The intrigue centers on Rennie Vogel, the only woman to land a permanent place on the FBI's elite and newly formed counter-terrorism team charged with hunting down the leader of a terrorist training camp in Tajikistan. From the race that cements Rennie's spot on the team to a harrowing trek through the lush forests of Shuroabad, Miss Lemon can see why this genre is called 'thriller.' Double agentry, hostage manipulation, narrow escapes -- it's all here in dramatic splendor.

Lest one think that Miss Lemon's literary sensibilities have veered madly from the British cosy, she begs one to consider the many things in common Ms. Vogel and her milieu have with their literary forebears.  Like Poirot with his little grey cells and Miss Marple with her village parallels, there are things that set Rennie Vogel apart from her peers and ultimately make her the one able to vanquish evil and establish order where others fail -- all the while unmasking that which is not at all what it first appears to be.

What's more, Miles to Go is smart and literary. From its apt title, taken from Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," and references to Hawthorne, to Fareed Reza, a reluctant terrorist still moved by the first time he ever laid eyes on Da Vinci's Ginevra D'Benci and Rennie Vogel, who remembers her childhood as if it were a cloister, shut up as she was with all of her books, Miss Lemon challenges her readers to find genre fiction so literate.

Ms. Dawson Robertson names Patricia Cornwell as an influencing figure on her writing, and indeed Miss Lemon could see many Cornwellian elements in Miles to Go, particularly in the scenes set  around Quantico, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Ms. Dawson Robertson also seems to have picked up Ms. Cornwell's knack for pacing. Miss Lemon picked up the book on a Saturday afternoon and had finished the bulk of it by nightfall. (Granted, she had to avert her eyes during many of the decidedly onstage acts of violence.)

Even so, dear readers, please don't laugh when Miss Lemon says that after reading Miles to Go, she rather regretted not taking up a career in the MI5. Then again ... one is never to old to be recruited, is one?